Tl;dr: A thoughtful look at anorexia, written with grace and hope.
The Girls at 17 Swann Street tackles eating disorders, specifically anorexia, through the pov of Anna, a 26 year old from France who develops anorexia after she and her husband, Matthias, move to Kansas. (Although it's clear from bits of Anna's past that are revealed throughout that she had earlier indications of being headed for an eating disorder)
The novel opens with Anna moving into 17 Swann Street for treatment as her weight has become so low her body is in imminent danger of shutting down. Anna is resigned and resistant to the idea of treatment, and horrified by the amount of food she is expected to eat.
One of the things I especially liked about The Girls at 17 Swann Street is how well it describes the mindset of someone with anorexia. I've lost two family members to it, and it *is* a disease. People with anorexia view food intake not as something that can be controlled, although it does seem to start that way, but it's really about fear. Anorexics, and Ms. Zgheib, excels at showing this, stop eating for any number of complex psychological reasons, but by the time they become so sick as to need help, their ability to think of food, view food, and consume food is trapped in a cycle of fear and anger and often, self loathing. Anorexia can't be cured by simply eating because for anorexics, distorted self image and utter, overwhelming terror of food itself makes what some view as fixable actually very difficult to treat.
Anna does go through a lot of these symptoms and although some may wish that Anna's past was explored more, her past has been consumed by anorexia just as she has. Her memories are almost all centered around food, even the happy ones, and there are several heartbreaking moments where Anna tries to drawn on these memories to remember the taste of certain foods, only to realize she can't. That's how pervasive and destructive anorexia is--an anorexic needs to eat, but will struggle, even in recovery, to remember those tastes again. To have those tastes again.
There are several other residents of 17 Swann Street, but the one who stuck with me hardest besides Anna is Emm, who acts as the home's resident mother hen and whose gradually revealed story is just devastating.
Although Anna does get to a better place by the end of The Girls at 17 Swann Street, she is honest about how fighting anorexia will be a forever battle and, through materials she's read during her stay, informs herself and the reader of the high rate of relapse.
I thought The Girls at 17 Swann Street was very deft, tone-wise. It has hope, but sorrow too. Joy, but sadness. It ends in a way that feels positive without ignoring reality. And the writing is just lovely! Anna is easy to like, as are all the women she meets, and I'm grateful to Ms. Zgheib for providing a thoughtful look into an easily sensationalized disease.
Highly recommended for anyone dealing with a family member who has an eating disorder, and for those looking for a contemporary title that's not afraid to tackle an tough issue, but does so with compassion.